Skip to main content

Massive – Ian Sample ****

This is a book of three halves. ‘Three halves?’ I hear you say. ‘Has the man gone mad?’ I defend this assertion because we are dealing with quantum physics and specifically particle physics, where the concept of something having three halves seems entirely plausible.
The first of those halves is primarily introductory. We get the obligatory (and now a touch tedious) novelesque opening with its unnecessary personal details (do we really care about Peter Higgs’ baby son who doesn’t play any part in the story?), and then we’re into background, both on particle physics and the concept of the Higgs field and the Higgs boson (aka the God Particle, a term the author is rather snooty about, despite happily using it in his book’s subtitle). This is by far the weakest of the three parts. The physics is skipped over in a very summary fashion – you get the impression the author doesn’t really understand it himself, and wants to get on to the people bits.
This is exactly what happens in the second half – and suddenly it’s a cracker. At this point what had been a slightly condescending book, in the manner of science being done for the plebs on TV news, now becomes a real page turner. The story of the race for bigger and better colliders and accelerators in the hunt for the fundamental particles that would explain the nature of matter is magnificently told. We really feel, for instance, for the scientists who had the US supercollider promised, started on, and then cut from under their feet. We understand the joys and pain of working at CERN or Fermilab.
The final half is nowhere near as bad as the first – but it lacks some of the sense of urgency and achievement of the centre section. In part, I suspect, this is because it’s a story without an ending. Of course Ian Sample had to get in the building (and temporary disaster) of the Large Hadron Collider, but in the end the story finishes with ‘and so the search goes on.’ There are a couple of anti-climaxes when a find is built up as a possible Higgs boson… only to be dismissed. This does reflect the realities of scientific work, but after the excitement of the middle section, it’s inevitably something of a let down. (For a more up-to-date, and overall better Higgs book see: Higgs by Jim Baggott).
Overall a good book on a subject that has more visibility than much current science, just a bit disappointing in its presentation of the physics which is too much at the level of TV or newspaper and misses out on the opportunity to get into more depth that a book allows.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …